In the age of empires, St. Kitts stood as one of the most visited ports in the Caribbean. Its capital of Basseterre was a major trading hub—an anchor of the British colonies in the New World. Today, rough-around-the-edges Basseterre remains a popular port, but the sloops and square-rigged schooners are gone, replaced by the myriad cruise ships that now ply the Eastern Caribbean.
These modern ships unload their sun-tanned passengers into the dock-adjacent shopping centers for daylong shore leaves. But slower travelers—those interested in staying for more than a day in port—can find a less polished St. Kitts, one that overflows with quintessentially Caribbean sights, sounds and flavors.
The first thing you’ll notice upon arriving in St. Kitts—on an airport runway surrounded by rainforest-shrouded peaks—are the dramatic views, and they’ll be a constant companion throughout your travels here. The small island’s lush volcanic spires rise from the mottled-blue Caribbean sea, concealing a verdant interior, where green monkeys swing through wild fruit trees, and outdoors-inclined travelers can choose from a multitude of adventures.
Hardcore hikers can take a full-day trek to the rim of the volcanic crater atop Mt. Liamuiga. For those who’d rather ride than walk, the jungles flanking the mountains have tracks perfect for horseback riding and ATV. And the St. Kitts’ zipline is a must for adrenaline junkies. It starts amid the ruins of a colonial-era rum distillery on Wingfield Estate, but ends with five highflying ziplines that crisscross the island’s biggest river through the Valley of the Giants.
Just offshore, divers and snorkelers have the chance to explore a tantalizing collection of shipwrecks, where the coral and fish populations rival better-known dive sites throughout the Caribbean—the only thing missing is the splashing crowds. Head out with Pro Divers St. Kitts—their shop is just across the road from the Ocean Terrace Inn—to get an expertly guided look at St. Kitts’ most popular dive, the River Taw shipwreck.
For visitors who want to take in the tastes and aromas of the island, head to downtown Basseterre. From Friday afternoon and into late Saturday night, the streets are lined with fruit and vegetable vendors while local grillmasters dole out juicy jerk chicken from their makeshift grills. In the winter, keep an eye out for fresh sorrel sepals. The jelly-like flowers of the sorrel plant are infused along with regional spices like citrus, clove and ginger to make a thick, sweet and spicy holiday concoction.
The twice-weekly beach bonfire (Tuesdays and Fridays) at The Shiggidy Shack is an island favorite among locals and visitors alike. This can’t-miss carnival on Frigate Bay features a lively mix of thumping reggae, calypso and cover music. Throw in piled plates of jerk chicken, BBQ ribs and fresh lobster for a song, wash it down with a cold Carib or three, and you’ll be well on your way to a late night of barefoot dancing in the sand.
Secluded watersport playground
Nestled inside of Cockleshell Bay, Reggae Beach is well worth the journey to the southeastern tip of the island. The secluded white-sand beach overlooks Nevis, and the Reggae Beach Bar serves up cold cocktails and hot conch chowder right on the beach. Here you can find everything from jetskis and sailing lessons to kayaks and snorkeling tours. And if you prefer relaxing on the sand, pull up a sun lounger to spend a day sipping drinks and catching rays far form the sounds of civilization.
Considering St. Kitts’ considerable history as a British colonial center, you’d be remiss to not take some time for a tour of some of the island’s most notable sights. Traveling northwest from Basseterre, one of the first stops is the now crumbling Middle Island Anglican Church. The first of its kind in the Eastern Caribbean, its cemetery also contains the final resting place of Samuel Jefferson—the great, great, great grandfather of American president Thomas Jefferson—who is buried alongside his good friend, West Indies English Governor Sir Thomas Warner, under a modest slab of cracked marble.
Just a little further up the coast you can visit the Brimstone Hill Fortress. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this imposing cliff-top garrison— nicknamed the “Gibraltar of the West”—is where the redcoats presided over the island’s shipping lanes with massive force.
Another common stop is Romney Manor. Purported to have once been the Jefferson family home, this historic estate is home to various ruins and replicas, as well as a beautiful botanical garden. Also on the grounds is Caribelle Batik, a small shop where women make dyed cloth using an Indonesian wax-and-dye process—look for the nearby rock bearing ancient petroglyphs, one of only a few remnants of the native Carib people who were here as far back as 2500 BC.
Where to stay
When planning a place to stay on St. Kitts, visitors who prefer a sequestered resort escape should look no further than Marriott’s St. Kitts Beach Club. However, if small and casual is more your style, the Ocean Terrace Inn is an ideal choice. Recently revitalized by new owners, the property is set into the hillside within walking distance of town, offering sublime views of Basseterre and the harbor.
Photos courtesy of Travis Marshall
– Travis Marshall